What happened in Cambridge in 2016: High points, low points and otherwise
A lot happens in the course of a year in a densely packed city of 110,402 people with high-profile industries, clashing interests and significant class disparities, and not all can be broken up into “good” and “bad” – what’s good for some is bad for others, and even the most traumatic incident can lead to an inspiring response. (Note the Dec. 3 fire that caused so much disruption, yet revealed so much that’s good about the city; those positive responses appear as a 2016 high point, though the fire itself would obviously be a low point for those affected directly by the disaster.) This list of good, bad and other is subjective, but at least should give a sense of events, trends and developments worthy of attention over the past 12 months in the life of our shared home.
Five high points for Cambridge in 2016
Stepping up when a fire rages. As many as 167 people were displaced or otherwise affected by the 10-alarm fire that struck East Cambridge on Dec. 3, and some homes and several cars were destroyed in the five-hour blaze. But response to the fire was phenomenal, starting with how it got knocked down: Though 150 firefighters from nearly two dozen fire departments were in the city after responding to mutual aid calls, the work was coordinated and precise. Then came the swift and smart response by city officials – led by Louis A. DePasquale, who’d taken over the City Manager’s Office not quite two weeks earlier, as thorough and professional response as any resident could hope to see from a government. Making that easy was the outpouring of financial support, sometimes $20 at a time, sometimes $20,000 at a time, from residents and companies doing business in the city. The Cambridge Mayor’s Fire Relief Fund was set first to raise $200,000, then bumped up to $500,000, and even so has been far surpassed by donations. Nearly $718,000 had been donated by 8,641 people in the 23 days since the fire, helping push the likely amount of total aid from all sources to well over the $1 million mark.
Standing up as a sanctuary city. Donald Trump blustered his way into the White House in November with a vow to strip all federal funds from cities that refuse to let people’s immigration status complicate how they interact with local government – for instance, causing the vulnerable to hesitate before calling police in an emergency. While it is unlikely the Trump administration would succeed in the defunding, Cambridge (alongside Somerville and Boston) was quick to show it couldn’t be pushed around. With the nod of the City Council, officials led by DePasquale affirmed that the city budget would find $14 million annually to make up for the loss and be kept intact during a potential four-year political siege.
Students setting the policies. City youth – especially girls and young women – have stepped up to engage publicly in the country’s and city’s most important issues, often leading the way on the policies affecting them. Hundreds of Cambridge Rindge and Latin School students (led by the high school’s Club 1, the Feminist Club) gathered at a walkout meant to draw attention to a culture of sexual harassment; students worked with faculty and parents to revamp a dress code with sexist aspects and stood up to a last-minute School Committee proposal that ran counter to their goals; and they pushed on a pilot program to offer free sanitary products for girls in public schools, despite some administrative resistance. Students also formed a group called United Students of America to rally against hateful comments heard by students about their race and sexual orientation and took their concerns off campus, leading a Black Lives Matter rally and making powerful appearances before the City Council to add their voices on bicycling safety. These children aren’t the future; they’re the present.
Taking action on affordability, including through eminent domain. Satisfaction over this one should be tentative at best, but after long, frustrating delays in which rhetoric has substituted for deeds, there’s action (of a sort) on on improving housing affordability. Last year saw the first update to “linkage” fees in about three decades; this year councillors set a clear schedule toward raising the number of required affordable-housing units to 20 percent of a developer’s total, after letting the figure languish at 11.5 percent since 1998. (It also returned to the idea of the city building below-market-rate housing on municipal parking lots in Central Square, after getting no traction on an order from 2014. The private sector did better with the Nov. 14 opening of Port Landing, where each of the 20 units are affordable.) The firmest, most exciting step was movement on seizing the derelict Vail Court. The council freed up $3.7 million to give the owners in return for an eminent domain land taking, claiming it for affordable, senior or transitional housing after watching the property decay over more than a decade.
Retailers succeeding in a tough environment. In a year that introduced so much cause for uncertainty among Harvard Square business owners and saw doors close forever at such venerable presences as Verna’s Coffee & Donut Shop (in business since 1951), Stellabella Toys (after more than three decades) and the Evergood Super Market (since 1949), it was a relief and a delight that Cafe Algiers – after a scare in which it closed abruptly in October after 43 years in Harvard Square – was swiftly reopened under the management of Sami Herbawi, longtime owner of Central Square’s Andala Coffee House. Similarly, after the North African-themed Baraka Cafe was forced out of Central Square, owner Alia Radjeb rebounded, moving her hidden gem to a more prominent space at 1728 Massachusetts Ave. In good news of a different sort, Panera Bread buying in to Tzurit Or’s small Tatte Bakery & Cafe chain meant a handsome two-story Tatte has replaced the Panera Bread location in Harvard Square – a huge win for everyone, including diners, tourists and the reputation and appeal of Harvard Square itself.
Five low points for Cambridge in 2016
Bicycle deaths spur transportation improvements. The city has been inspired to test separated bike lanes, improve the mess of Inman Square and in general get more serious about transportation infrastructure that gives bicyclists a safer way to get around. But it took two deaths in 2016 to get to that point: Amanda Phillips was hit by a landscaping truck in Inman Square in June; Bernard “Joe” Lavins died after being hit by an 18-wheeler in Porter Square in October. It was just before Phillips’ death that Tom Meek had looked in Cambridge Day at our cities’ halting infrastructure improvements and lamented that “for the most part, efforts are piecemeal – and it seems the only time anything gets done is when tragedy strikes.”
Hate speech and violence sound their Trump tones. Reports of post-election hate have proliferated, including five examples of swastikas and “hateful language” discovered at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School in – appropriately enough – the restrooms and a swastika found at the Vassal Lane Upper School. But the adults are failing too, with reports of a Harvard Law student being called a “fucking Muslim” by a fellow shopper and being followed around inside a store; an incident in which a postal worker was seen telling a Hispanic man, “Go back to your country. This is Trump land”; and an elderly woman being confronted by two large men wearing masks who hit and menaced her while saying, “You did not vote for Trump.” All are good reminders that most Cantabrigians don’t just live in a small bubble of progressivism and tolerance – but in a permeable one. The election saw 3,323 residents (6 percent of the 53,282 ballots cast) vote for the Trump-Pence ticket. Another 334 people left their presidential vote blank.
The School Committee resolves its way into irrelevance. Mayor E. Denise Simmons took her seat at the head of the School Committee in January looking forward to a term “as productive and efficient as possible,” but the meetings she starts on time have been anything but. Perhaps the purest example of the committee’s uselessness was its pushing off of debate on several topics to a two-day summer retreat that then included no debate, followed by moving those same ignored topics to a subcommittee that then voted them out again with the realization they didn’t belong in the subcommittee. Any serious policy work is frequently lost amid snide manifestations of interpersonal issues worthy of the dullest of reality television. Far from showing that “we take our work seriously,” as the mayor arrived vowing, this body – now roughly split between experienced members and recent arrivals – is being made all but irrelevant, with the mayor actually telling administrators tinkering with CRLS class structure in November that she applauded them “not waiting for a School Committee policy” because she didn’t want to “slow this down.” (New superintendent Kenneth Salim was part of the tinkering, although it’s his six-month and so-far underwhelming “entry plan” barring policy orders that is behind some of the committee’s need to push paper around to look like it’s accomplishing anything.) At this point, the district’s high school students are driving about as much policy as the School Committee. Seriously.
City processes flop. The residents of East Cambridge got the city the 53,000-square-foot Foundry building in a 2009 deal with a real estate developer, but this gift has barely made it out of the wrapping. The process began dragging with former city manager Robert W. Healy’s failure four years ago (when the deed to the property arrived) to take even the most preliminary steps to use the space and hit another low point this month with votes by the East Cambridge Planning Team and Cambridge Redevelopment Authority to start over again on finding a developer. A new start probably won’t happen for the Outdoor Lighting Ordinance Task Force, which was formed by request of the council in 2013 after repeated (and repeatedly rejected) efforts by resident Charles Teague to make the city crack down on violations of its own lighting code. After years of work, the task force has presented a draft that accomplishes almost nothing – there’s no enforcement mechanism in place, and some significant loopholes that could keep lights glaring into people’s homes for years to come.
The feeling of safety evaporates amid violence. Despite reports that crime overall has continued to fall, hitting its lowest point since 1963, this was the year officials began taking steps to protect against looming threats of violence, starting with a $2.1 million, 32-building municipal “security enhancement project” to lock up City Hall and schools in case of emergencies or threats. Such steps make sense after the kind of violence seen in East Cambridge in April, when a fired worker returned to take revenge, targeting a supervisor with a gun before turning the weapon on himself and committing suicide. Only a month earlier, two men were shot outside Mount Auburn Hospital, one fatally, and the workplace violence was followed by an April double-shooting in the Area IV/Port neighborhood. The smattering of other shootings that took place, as in any densely populated metro area, pale in comparison despite the inherently fatal risk of gunfire. It doesn’t help when it’s off-duty police officers accused of crimes, as in a July incident where a rowdy group of men beat up a Revere restaurant worker or a February hit-and-run that left a bicyclist injured.
Some other notable developments for Cambridge in 2016
Harvard Square projects cause worry. As construction continues on Harvard University’s Forbes Plaza, attention – and alarm – shifts to the Out of Town News kiosk, where residents and city councillors saw a process running seemingly on automatic toward a concept for reuse they weren’t sure they liked, and to the buildings at 5 and 9-11 JFK St. and 18 Brattle St., which will be joined into a retail and office project called The Collection at Harvard Square. The concerns there aren’t just over the long-term displacement of businesses and construction’s effect on nearby retailers, but on the exploding rents needed to pay back the potential $110 million costs. “Who will be able to rent here?” wondered Denise Jillson, executive director of the Harvard Square Business Association.
The green line extension wins a $25 million commitment. A staggeringly mismanaged state project could have been canceled completely without Cambridge agreeing to chip in $25 million (half from NorthPoint developers) and Somerville committing to $50 million. Despite what some called “extortion,” the stations that result will still be far less than what was dangled before state bureaucrats allowed $1 billion in cost overruns.
Columbus Day was eliminated. Cambridge welcomed Indigenous Peoples Day in June, but to make it up to angry Italians reaffirmed all of October as Italian Heritage Month in the city, and turned Oct. 1 into Italian Heritage Day – a somewhat problematic salve in a city full of immigrants from a variety of cultures, where people of Irish ancestry (for instance) far outnumber those of Italian ancestry.
Connolly defeats Toomey. Activist and attorney Mike Connolly unseated state Rep. Tim Toomey in a September primary upset 54 percent to 46 percent, ending a run of 12 terms (and 24 years) on Beacon Hill. Toomey remains a Cambridge city councillor.
An immigrant commission is activated after 10 years. An 11-member volunteer Commission on Immigrant Rights and Citizenship aimed at making life and the quest for citizenship easier for foreign-born residents was established by the city in May. Interesting fact: The commission was written into city law in April 2006 and simply went without action for a decade before being announced. Word came just as a similar effort was getting underway, led in large part by private citizens.
Free speech takes a hit. Under Simmons, the City Council has strictly enforced rules for the public in ways that prevent or restrict speech at meetings, including ejecting one citizen for carrying a sign and stopping another from merely speaking a councillor’s name. It’s a bad look for a council that continues to drag its feet on televising all meetings and broke a promise about offering public access to city manager candidates. (In that case, city councillor David Maher said complaints were based on “a lot of misinformation” because “the original schedule called for one town hall meeting” – which was easily shown to be wrong in video of an officially untelevised subcommittee meeting that was filmed and released on YouTube by independent journalist John Hawkinson, who posted it on Cambridge Day.)
Teens get the shaft. Even while disputing firefighter and police accounts of how many teens were inside a party on their premises March 26, officers at the United American Vets’ Eugene F. Lynch Post No. 30 told the License Commission they’d stop teen parties entirely – even though everyone there had been well-behaved and following the law, as they had at every such event in the North Cambridge post’s history. The teens got thrown under the bus just for showing up to dance at a party to which they were invited.
Maher announces move to Chamber of Commerce. Longtime councillor Maher announced in November that he would join the Chamber of Commerce as its president beginning Dec. 12 while remaining on the council to finish out his current term, “recusing himself on the ‘rare’ occasions a chamber issue comes before [it].” It opens up a seat in the November election.